British humanitarian health workers
barred entry into Gaza
By Peter Smith and Catherine Thick
Although passage to and from Gaza via Israel’s crossing points is severely restricted by the Israeli military, until now we have been fortunate to be granted entry permits. But, our recent request for entry has been refused – without explanation — despite the Israeli general claim that restrictions are easing.
As osteopaths and acupuncturists we have volunteered in Gaza and the West Bank over the last five years, treating those with limited access to health care. We have made eight trips to Palestine since 2008 , and worked three times in Nablus before concentrating more on Gaza. Our motivation is neither political nor religious, but rather simply to help relieve suffering.
We are, however, strongly opposed to the inhumane treatment of the people of Gaza, and concerned at media under-reporting of the lives of the Palestinian people.
This leaves room for virtually-unanswered parodies about the high life lived by some of Gaza’s rich and privileged – a life which the international media sees and even shares during their visits to the Gaza Strip. These parodies have been devised and promoted by Israeli government officials whose responsibilities include dealing with the media. Pro-Israeli organizations working to influence the media have also produced similar pointed commentaries.
But, the existence of this apparent paradox does not in any way negate the reality facing many of Gaza’s 1.6 million Palestinian residents who are poor and suffering and struggling.
Waiting once at the Erez crossing, we spoke to a foreign journalist who explained that Israel banned all its journalists from working in Gaza after Israel’s “disengagement” in 2005.
While Israelis are now barred from personally witnessing what is going on in Gaza, the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza, meanwhile, have no way to move in or out of Gaza, from which Israel carried out its unilateral “disengagement” of some 8,000 Israeli settlers and the Israeli forces protecting them in September 2005. The “protection” the Israeli forces offered in Gaza, however, was only for the Israelis; the Palestinian population living under Israel’s military occupation suffered from severe clamp-downs on their own internal movement, and the military firing that constituted much of that “protection”.
We witnessed life in Gaza under the sanctions imposed in mid-2007 by the Israeli government and administered by the Israeli military, when Hamas took control in Gaza after its rout of Fatah/Palestinian security services. There have been recurring hostilities ever since, including two large-scale Israeli military operations against Gaza.
The sanctions include denying millions of Palestinians the right to travel to and from Gaza, and are still in effect, although they were “adjusted” after the international outcry following Israel’s May 2010 interception of the Freedom Flotilla and boarding of the large Turkish passenger ship, the Mavi Marmara, during which 9 Turkish men were killed.
These sanctions, however, are collective punishment – which is forbidden under international law.
On one visit, we walked through the Israeli crossing at Erez and out through a long cage in “no-man’s land” inside Gaza, and were waiting for a car to take us to the Hamas border control, when a bomb exploded uncomfortably close. An old man sitting on the ground looked up at us and said “bad”. That pretty much sums up life for many, as we saw it, who are now locked inside Gaza.
During our work in Gaza, we treated a 65 year old man with very painful advanced osteoarthritis of the knees. He was a qualified accountant but could not get a job in his profession and works as a builder’s labourer for 12 hours every day which exacerbated his pain. He was desperate for relief so that he could continue working to support his family. “Those of us who are fortunate to have a job often have to support an extended family which puts us under great pressure”. he said. “Hourly wages are very low so we have to work long hours. We Palestinians are hard-working but we cannot use our skills. We used to manufacture and export furniture to many countries.” But now, he said gloomily, “We can do nothing.”
Another patient drove a truck, delivering and collecting goods at the commercial crossing[s]. “The catastrophe in Gaza is not an earthquake or a flood, it’s man-made,” he said. Shutdowns were frequent and truck drivers are angry about the exorbitant prices exacted by the export companies and Hamas. “They operate like a mafia,” he shouted, “Israel, Egypt, and our government, everybody, are all restricting movement at the crossing and the people of Gaza are paying the price.”
The clinics we ran were well-attended, giving us the opportunity to listen to the views of the many people who bear the physical and emotional scars of Israeli bombs and repression. A doctor at the clinic we worked from told us, “Over 80 per cent of Palestinian children suffer trauma at the sound of the Israeli F-16 fighter aircraft which frequently overfly the territory. We have noticed an increase in the number of deformed babies as well as a sharp increase in the number of cancer patients, especially among children and women, following the 22-day war in 2008-2009. There are bombs almost daily, the Israelis do not keep to ceasefires and the violations are never reported.”
Through the dignity and good humour of those we treated, the sense of despair under the surface was palpable. A physiotherapist at the clinic told us, “A few are driven to the edge of insanity. There are acts of aggression toward one another and the Israelis.”
A lovely family with three beautiful, bright daughters attended every clinic. The very shy and anxious 14 year old daughter suffered breathing problems after inhaling noxious gases when a phosphorous bomb exploded close to their home. She had become withdrawn with post-traumatic stress, and experienced flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia and anxiety. We treated her almost every day for two weeks and it was wonderful to see her breathing improve and change from a frightened girl to a smiling teenager.
It is difficult to imagine the sense of anguish and helplessness the parents of these children feel. The father said, “We find it difficult to comprehend why we are being punished because of the actions of extremist groups we do not support. Only a minority of us hold extreme views. We are a peaceful people who endure this brutal oppression, the massive overcrowding and rising poverty. We want a normal life and a future for our children whose innocence has been stolen.”
Their mother is a nurse and we treated her for stress-related migraines. She told us “With high poverty and unemployment, most people cannot afford to eat properly. The average diet is poor and loaded with unhealthy carbohydrates, so I see a lot of obesity, anaemia in pregnant women and children, diabetes and raised blood pressure.” More than half of the households in Gaza eat poorly or are short of food– even when taking into account UN food distributions to almost 1.1 million people. Eighty percent of households receive some form of assistance.
Al-Shifa hospital, the main hospital in Gaza City, had holes in the walls, no windows, old and broken down equipment and few sufficiently trained surgeons. An exhausted doctor there told us, “Additional expertise, hospital beds and staff will be needed in the coming years to serve a growing population. While some of our health indicators are comparable to middle-income countries, quality needs to be improved. Most of our health facilities are unable to provide safe and adequate services and urgently need to be rehabilitated or upgraded. The infant mortality rate here is 23 per 1000 live births, comparable to Nicaragua. Many of the children brought to us had permanent afflictions caused by hypoxia or other birth traumas which the hospitals cannot deal with.” While Israeli authorities permit the access of medical supplies, there are frequent breakdowns of medical equipment. The doctor said, “Severely ill patients need to be transferred to hospitals in Israel, the West Bank or Jordan. There can be endless delays with applications for transfer which costs lives.”
Ibrahim, who helps us arrange the clinics, took us to a village that had suffered heavy shelling and many casualties, where families were living in tents next to their bombed out homes. “The people of Gaza are denied basic human rights and everyday life is filled with hardship”, Ibrahim said. “Medical supplies, all services, many foods except for the basics, civil rights and liberty are harshly restricted, regulated and enforced by the Israeli authorities. Gaza is forced to buy and import food from Israel as it does not have the means now to produce enough locally.” Clearly angry, Ibrahim told us, “Although Gaza, unlike the West Bank, is no longer [directly] occupied it has become, in effect, a huge prison. When Israeli PM Sharon became convinced that the Gaza Strip was no longer worthwhile, he abandoned it and closed its residents within an enormous ghetto with no opportunity for self-sufficiency.”
We walked with Ibrahim through the crowded and noisy streets of Gaza City. He explained that the power station in Gaza runs on petrol which is imported from Israel and Egypt. To make matters worse, the power station was heavily damaged by shelling and one third is still out of action because the Israeli government rarely allows any spare parts or building materials into Gaza. As a result there are power cuts during which homes, shops, hospitals and offices are forced to resort to using petrol-driven generators which are expensive, dirty and unreliable. Ibrahim said, “The noise and smell of all the generators hits us when walking down these streets and it is a constant and depressing reminder of our situation.” Another more serious effect of the power cuts is that there is not enough electricity to run the water purification plants, so most of the water in Gaza is unsafe to drink. Ibrahim said “It is hard sometimes not to feel that the endless chaos the blockade causes is a calculated control tactic and a form of spiteful, collective mass punishment.”
“Even more worrying”, Ibrahim said, “Society is fracturing, traditional community life and values are being destroyed.”
Emy, a university student and our interpreter, said quietly later, “We barely have enough to survive. We don’t want pity, we want our freedom and this loss of liberty is what we find most difficult to endure.”
While in Gaza, we stay at a building mostly occupied by foreign NGOs. They spoke more freely than some of the Palestinian patients we met in our work. An educational trainer said, “The blockade and internal repression have political, developmental and cultural consequences which benefit fundamentalist forces because people are resorting to religious thinking and behaviour, abandoning intellect and creativity”. She concluded sadly, “The children who are old enough to be aware of their situation can become withdrawn, aggressive or radicalised.”
One evening, we arrived back at our apartment block where we were confronted by the bright lights of a film crew and a mass of people talking and shouting and obviously agitated. We had a call from Ibrahim telling us Italian peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni had been kidnapped and murdered by an extremist Salafist group. Ibrahim told us not to leave our apartment unescorted.
We sat on the balcony into the early hours with a UNDP worker. He explained that as supplies are restricted and expensive, a lot of goods, especially construction material and cheap fuel, were being smuggled in through hundreds of tunnels dug along the border with Egypt. This distorts the economy. The tunnels have kept a modest construction boom flowing in Gaza, employing thousands of people. The tunnels bring in everything from food and medicine to cement and iron, providing a large percentage of the goods that stock Gazan shelves. Though the tunnel industry has contracted since Israel began allowing more goods through the crossing in 2010, Gazans say the tunnels are still necessary for their daily survival.
The UNDP representative explained that with a ballooning population, it will eventually become all but impossible to provide, through the crossings and the tunnels, all the energy, education, health, water and sanitation necessary for the inhabitants of Gaza to lead healthy and productive lives in peace and security. Gaza, heavily urbanised environment with little room for further growth, needs to be open and accessible to the West Bank and to the world, and needs to be in control of its own airspace and coastline.
It is only in conversations with NGOs and aid workers that we could talk about the political tension in Gaza directly. Fatah and Hamas continue to be unable to form a united government, undermining their ability to negotiate for Palestinians on the international stage — but the US has threatened expanded economic sanctions if Fatah and Hamas form a unity government. Meanwhile, the Hamas government has begun imposing new restrictions on residents of the Gaza Strip, forcing them to apply for exit permits to enter Israel or the West Bank, which the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a Gaza-based watchdog, said this only increases the suffering of the already-limited groups of people who are permitted by Israeli forces to travel via Erez crossing.
The mounting catalogue of failures over the last six decades to commit Israel and Palestine to full equality under international law is worrying. The Palestinians and Israelis have differing views of history, of what it is true, of the future. But visiting Gaza and the West Bank stamps a vivid impression of the consequences of a major social injustice, of oppression and dispossession. Surely it is time to take a pragmatic approach to break the current impasse of this complex conflict.
Peter Smith is an osteopath and acupuncturist working in Kent. Catherine Thick is an acupuncturist in Northumberland and the founder of Equity & Peace.